A breakthrough season for the Los Angeles Kings, resulting in their first playoff berth since 2001-2002, is just a sign of things to come for a talented team on the rise.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what could be next for this team, including possible free agent signings that will take this rebuilding project into the next phase of its development.
"It's safe to say we took a step forward this year and had success," GM Dean Lombardi told the Los Angeles Times after losing to Vancouver in the first round, "but that success is useful only if we learn why we failed."
"Failed" is a harsh word to use for a team that recorded its most points in 19 years, but the understanding is that the Kings aren't satisfied with merely making a one-and-done playoff appearance; not that any team is, but the Kings have the potential for much more.
After a patient rebuilding process, that has seen Lombardi make 18 picks in the first three rounds of his first four drafts, the Kings are stocked well with prospects and are in position to bolster their talented young core with more skilled acquisitions this summer.
Because the Kings have a relatively young team, and several free agents, they have cap room available to make significant signings if the right player or players are available.
All hunters of big name free agents will have their sights set on Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrick Marleau and others, and the Kings not only figure to be involved in those discussions, but could be one of the front-runners to secure the services of an elite scorer.
If a premier scorer provides the sizzle, an upgrade on defence also wouldn't hurt the Kings, either and their goaltending appears to be in good hands with Jonathan Bernier ready to challenge Jonathan Quick for the starter's job.
The Kings can't afford to be complacent in this position. Internal improvement will surely help, and should be expected from a young team, but there have been several teams in recent years that thought they were on their way to becoming the next Chicago Blackhawks, only to regress after an all-too-brief taste of the postseason.
Obviously, that's not going to be good enough for the Kings since they have the wherewithal to make moves this summer that will put them on track to being championship contenders in the not-too-distant future.
Dean Lombardi/Terry Murray
Rising star Anze Kopitar is an outstanding offensive talent -- in the last ten years, the four players with more points in their first four seasons go by the names of Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin and Kovalchuk, so he's in good company. The 22-year-old had a career-high 82 points and plus-6 rating last season and it seems he's just getting started.
To take that next step, into elite scorer territory, Kopitar needs to be able to hold up for the entire season. He started quickly last year, but his production faded, so conditioning may be an issue.
Hard-driving winger Dustin Brown brings it consistently and is annually one of the league's leading hitters. He's also scored at least 20 goals for three straight seasons and played at least 78 games in five straight.
Brown's defensive play remains a work in progress; last year's minus-6 was his best rating since the lockout. For a 101-point team like the Kings, that's simply not good enough.
Picked up from Colorado in a trade last summer, Ryan Smyth had a solid season overall, though he managed just two goals in the last 20 games of the season. Smyth has scored at least 50 points in ten straight seasons, and the 34-year-old remains effective in front of the opposition goal, chipping in 24 points on the power play.
It's not ideal production for the contract he has, but that deal was done before he arrived in L.A. and the Kings can't reasonably expect Smyth to be a 30-goal scorer. It could happen, but it shouldn't be expected.
While he may be a better fit as a third-line, two-way centre, Jarret Stoll plays a sound game and his ability to run the point on the power play enhances his value. These compliments aside, at Stoll's pay rate, more scoring would be welcome.
Wayne Simmonds had a spectacular second season, one of only two players (Stars rookie Jamie Benn was the other) last season to score at least 40 points while playing fewer than 15 minutes per game. A tough winger who can skate and play both ends of the rink, 21-year-old Simmonds should only get better as he matures into a bigger role.
33-year-old checking centre Michal Handzus has come on the last two seasons after a rough debut year in Los Angeles. Last season saw him notch 20 goals for the fourth time in his career and his size makes him effective as a checker against other top centres as well as a handful for opposing defencemen down low in the offensive zone.
Given his injury woes in recent seasons, the Kings were taking a risk bringing in Justin Williams and while he played okay when healthy, injuries led to his playing in fewer than 50 games for the third consecutive season.
Under contract for one more season, Williams could be bought out, or the Kings could roll the dice and hope that the 28-year-old will be healthy and productive next season.
25-year-old winger Scott Parse climbed his way through the Kings system and the sixth-round pick out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha arrived in the NHL last season, ready to play a two-way game and even chip in a little offensively, with 11 goals, 24 points and a plus-13 rating in 59 games; enough to earn a regular place in the lineup.
Oscar Moller spent more time in the AHL in his second pro season, as he struggled in his 34 games with the Kings. He's speedy and talented, but has to get stronger if he's going to be an impact player in the NHL.
Speedy forward Brad Richardson was given a new opportunity with the Kings, after fading out of Colorado's plans, and the 25-year-old responded, playing in 81 games and netting a career-high 27 points, even spending some time filling in on the first line.
Los Angeles has several free agents that could leave, most notable among them being Alexander Frolov, who should attract a lot of interest.
As a result, however, the Kings also have some cap room of their own to use in the free agent market and, as a team on the rise in a desirable location, are considered contenders for top free agent wingers like Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Marleau; Marleau has a prior relationship with Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who drafted Marleau to the Sharks in 1997.
Additionally, if the Kings aren't going to bring back Raitis Ivanans, there are other enforcers on the free agent market, including Derek Boogaard, Brian McGrattan and Jody Shelley if the Kings are still prepared to keep a heavyweight on the roster.
20-year-old defenceman Drew Doughty was nominated for the Norris Trophy for the first time following an impressive second NHL season and it won't be the last. Exhibiting rare poise and confidence, Doughty was one of four defencemen to tally 50 points and have a plus-minus rating of at least plus-20.
Jack Johnson's third season represented somewhat of a breakout for him, particularly late in the year and into the playoffs, as he finished the year with a career-best 36 points and a minus-15 rating, though he was plus-2 in his last 35 games.
Johnson is the No. 2 behind Doughty on the Kings' blueline, so they need him to be more reliable; contenders don't often have No. 2 defencemen with double-digit minus ratings and it appears that Johnson is turning the corner in that regard, but until the 23-year-old proves he can do it for a full season, there will be questions about his decision-making.
Signed as a free agent last summer, Rob Scuderi was a steadying defensive presence, putting up a double-digit plus rating for the second straight season. With three goals in 373 career games, Scuderi's influence is limited to the defensive zone, but he's a nice complement to Doughty.
Matt Greene adds size and a dose of nastiness to the blueline. He's not going to do anything special with the puck, but he's become a solid depth defenceman.
After a strong start to the season, 25-year-old Davis Drewiske slumped then got hurt and saw action in only six games in 2010. Still relatively unproven, he may be ticketed for the seventh defenceman's spot or require a turn in Manchester.
An inexpensive swing man, who can skate at forward or defence, depending on lineup needs, Peter Harrold played in 39 games last season and, while he didn't play poorly, he didn't necessarily distinguish himself either.
Los Angeles will have some needs on defence if they lose stay-at-home vet Sean O'Donnell and/or Randy Jones as free agents. Given their cap space, the Kings figure to be in the mix for a top free agent like Paul Martin, Dan Hamhuis or Johnny Boychuk, or the Kings could go for a more defensive option like Anton Volchenkov, Zbynek Michalek,or, if he's healthy, Willie Mitchell.
In any case, adding one proven blueliner and opening the door for one prospect to join the group should be sufficient heading into next season.
Jonathan Quick went from unheralded to workhorse awfully quickly, as the 24-year-old started 72 games, which was more than ideal as his play suffered following a good stretch in the middle of the season.
Signed to a reasonable contract, Quick is an adequate starter for the Kings, but will face serious competition from top prospect Jonathan Bernier.
Erik Ersberg struggled early last season and couldn't get into much action as Quick backstopped the Kings to a playoff spot. If the Kings are inclined to bring Bernier to the NHL, Ersberg (or possibly even Quick) could be trade bait.
||30-21-6, 2.053 GAA, .936 SVPVCT, 57 GP
||34-65-99,+41, 59 GP
||9-15-24,+8, 29 GP
||10-19-29,even, 79 GP
||10-30-40,-2, 60 GP
||1-5-6,-4, 19 GP
||36-11-1, 2.21 GAA, .919 SVPCT, 48 GP
||10-9,2.92 GAA, .915 SVPCT, 22 GP
||7-23-30,+12, 55 GP
||Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
||15-52-67,+6, 64 GP
After dominating the AHL, and impressing in his three games with the Kings, Jonathan Bernier is not only ready for the NHL, but could very well be ready to unseat Jonathan Quick as the starter. The 2006 first-round pick has nothing left to prove in the AHL, which makes for a crowded crease in Los Angeles.
Last year's first-round pick, Brayden Schenn had another strong season in the Western Hockey League and he appears to be on his way to becoming a second-line centre in the NHL. The Kings have depth at centre, so there's no need to rush Schenn, but a strong camp could press the team to make a decision.
Andrei Loktionov has NHL talent, and generally impressed in his first pro season, but the 20-year-old does need to fill out and get stronger if he's going to not only handle but succeed while dealing with the nightly grind of the professional game.
A mobile defenceman with a heavy shot from the point, Vyacheslav Voynov is only 20-years-old, yet has two seasons of AHL experience under his belt. Language has been an issue early in his career, so Voynov will need to improve his communication with teammates before he's considered ready to move up.
Colten Teubert has the size and toughness for the next level, but needs work on his defensive play and decision-making before he's going to be ready for a shutdown role, which should be the objective for the 2008 first-rounder.
The fourth overall pick in 2007, Thomas Hickey's first pro campaign was marred by a shoulder injury that required surgery and limited him to just 19 regular season and four playoff games.
Hickey's not big, so he's going to rely on good decision-making and strong passing if he's going to land a spot in Los Angeles and probably needs more AHL seasoning and time to mature physically before he's considered.
Goaltending is an area of strength for the Kings and Martin Jones enojoyed another strong season for the WHL-Champion Calgary Hitmen. Next stop, the pros, but who knows exactly how and where he'll fit in the organization?
22-year-old Jeff Zatkoff backed-up Bernier in Manchester and put up decent numbers in 22 games, after playing in the ECHL the year before. Again, a lot of bodies battling for playing time in the crease.
Sturdy 22-year-old defenceman Alec Martinez had a strong season once he was returned to Manchester. He needs to be more consistent, but could be considered for a depth role with the Kings.
Signed as a free agent during his sensational overage season in the OHL, Jake Muzzin also made a smooth transition to the American Hockey League playoffs when his season ended. The 21-year-old may need some time to get used to the next level but has the frame, and apparently the game, of a pro blueliner.
Smallish collegiate forward Garrett Roe is another intriguing prospect, coming off a junior season in which he scored 20 goals and 49 points in 41 games with St. Cloud State.
19th - Emerson Etem, Quinton Howden, Nick Bjugstad.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Kings have approximately $44.7M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 16 players.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman.
What I said the Kings needed last year: Two forwards, One top four defenceman.
Who did they add? Ryan Smyth, Rob Scuderi.
TRADE MARKET Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams, Oscar Moller, Erik Ersberg.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen